Vava Angwenyi is a Kenyan entrepreneur who is passionately trying to democratize the coffee industry in her home country.Pic Photo Courtesy
This Kenyan Female Founder Wants To Radically Change The Coffee Industry
In 2009, Vava Angwenyi returned to her native Kenya, after completing her studies in Canada and Europe, with the ambition of changing the African coffee industry to include more Africans like herself. Nearly a decade in, she’s finally figuring how to make a dent in the chaotic world of coffee trading, which, she argues, has for too long been dominated by foreigners.
“After I came home, I was amazed that nothing had been done to boost the awareness, locally, here of the Kenyan farmer and Kenyan coffee, which is revered abroad,” she says.
Hence, she started Vava Coffee, a Nairobi-based enterprise focused on educating Kenyan farmers, getting more women into the coffee industry, and engaging the youth of East Africa to get them excited about one of their most prized agricultural products — coffee.
Coffee is a massive market. Approximately 2.25 billion cups are consumed daily around the world. Of this, the Arabica coffee farmed in Kenya is considered some of the world’s best. The problem is most Kenyans do not drink it, or get to drink it, says Angwenyi. Some 93% of the coffee produced in Kenya is exported.
The majority of coffee grown in Kenya is farmed by smallholder farmers; around 70%. Despite this, it’s not the smallholder farmers that have the power or money. On average, smallholder coffee farmers in Kenya earn less than 35% of the international market value on their high-quality specialty coffees, Angwenyi says. In real terms, that works out to farmers earning less than a dollar a day.
According to Angwenyi, this comes down to a lack of market access and information. To begin with, the majority of Kenyan coffee farmers have never even tasted their own product. Vava Coffee aims to create direct links between smallholder coffee farmers and markets that are looking to buy ethically-sourced and traceable coffee.
“I see traders that are really lazy, and just keep doing things in the old ways. We should hold everyone we work with accountable, especially if you’re doing direct trade. A lot of people just swing in, visit a co-op, take a few photos, and then leave. But what about becoming a part of the community and actually helping producers out of the situation?”
That’s why she spends a lot of her time teaching producers agronomy, running workshops and making sure farmers are aware of the opportunities that are available to them within the industry.
One of the biggest travesties, she says, is that not enough East Africans, and farmers, in particular, are drinking coffee. She ran a workshop where farmers tasted their own coffee for the first time. This sort of exposure is crucial, she says. “Once Africans taste coffee their perception changes – even once you show them how to brew coffee.”
Angwenyi started her company with a coffee shop in Nairobi; but she quickly realized that she was less interested in serving coffee and running a cafe, and more keen on empowering farmers to earn more per cup. So she changed gears and focused on farmer training, and trading coffee to buyers in Europe and the US. Most recently, she’s developed a direct-to-consumer arm to the business, enabling the sales of smaller amounts of coffee, and bring more elements of the supply chain in-house.
Angwenyi is not shy about sharing the challenges she has faced in coffee as a woman and as an East African. In large part, she argues that Africa’s coffee industry is connected to the continent’s colonial history and its tribulations.
It’s frustrating, she says, to see her fellow Kenyans internalize the historical rhetoric that “help and success” comes only from white foreigners, a feeling perpetuated by the development community. As a result, she argues that farmers and youth don’t see opportunities for themselves in the industry.
“No one has told them about the opportunities within the coffee sector because they only see the white man doing these things,” she explains. “If you look at all the big multinationals, most of the employers in those positions are foreigners.
“The producers right now are not really players in the game. People will always try and put producers beneath them,” she says. “It’s a form of slavery and that’s what colonists did best; ‘you will grow this, but you will never consume it.’”
The problem, she says, starts with lack of education. Many of the farmers that Vava Coffee engaged with in Kenya were not even aware that they could go and get a direct sale license, she recalls: “When they started talking to us, they were like ‘what is this license?’”
Thus, she transitioned from coffee shop entrepreneur to wholesale — to equip farmers with the knowledge on trading licenses, better farming practices, and eliminate the layers of middlemen in coffee trading as much as possible. Vava Coffee has worked with over 30,000 smallholder farmers across Kenya and Tanzania.
But at first, it wasn’t easy. Even in working with farmers, she was amazed to see that these farmers were reluctant to work with her. Why? “Because I’m a woman,” she says. “And because my skin is the wrong color. Because they think that help only comes from white people.”
To date, the coffee industry has been dominated by men who handle the business side of things. As a result, part of Vava’s mission is to get more women, and more young people into the industry. Of the 30,000 farmers the company has engaged with, a quarter of them are women.
Using herself as an example, she’s keen to erase those misconceptions. She is now facilitating workshops for female ‘agripaneurs’ – think agriculture meets entrepreneurship – and is looking into how the industry might be able to sponsor youth at origin. This year, she launched the first line of Fairtrade-certified coffee owned by smallholder women coffee farmers in Kenya from two women-centric co-ops from the Rift Valley.
The fact is, she explains, young people, men and women alike, don’t see the opportunity: coffee doesn’t provide the quick returns that many young people and investors are after. Instead, like in many agricultural communities around the world, young people are leaving family farms for the city, hoping that it may be a faster road to wealth.
However, they can be part of the solution, she argues: one of Vava Coffee’s suggestions to farmers has been to roast coffee, and develop micro-cultures of coffee drinking in Kenya.
“When you’re dealing with such a volatile product, we want them to own the product more. The industry needs more radical leaders. Perhaps that’ll come from the next generation. At least, that’s what we’re betting on and that’s why we’re investing in youth progams,” she says.
When Angwenyi started, she had little knowledge of the politics and complexities of the coffee supply chain, she admits. “The less I knew the better, because then I could say that I could do something really outrageous and in the end, I would achieve it because I never knew how many hurdles existed.”
A decade later, she has a few major suggestions for the industry. First, invest in better data, she says. “There’s a lack of good data in coffee. Baristas and consumers are so disconnected from the producers. We have to share better information, more real stories of producers, not just photo-ops, but actual data.”
Secondly, as farmers age, she argues that the coffee industry has to think about the next generation that will adopt these farms. “Do they know how to increase yields? Will they stay and take care of the farm? If the answer is maybe, then how do we ensure that they do. Coffee can be a profitable venture. But it needs to be more balanced, and not so lopsided towards the buyer and consumer.”